If ideas have consequences, and fiction builds empathy, what is our responsibility as fiction writers when it comes to social justice?
In some respects, we may be living in the most difficult era ever for the arts. There are literally millions of entertainment options screaming for people’s time and attention. Bundling and subscriptions frame the cost of these options in a new light. Why buy the album when Spotify is cheaper? Why buy the physical book when, you could get Kindle or Audible? This is to say nothing of the instant and widespread, anonymous reaction that follows if you do get noticed. We need a thick skin, self-confidence, and an intrinsic joy in the art itself more than ever.
At the time of this writing, America is going through a social awakening when it comes to racial injustice. Video evidence has made it impossible to dismiss the reality that we still have a problem with inequality. It is more important than ever that we, as writers, choose our words and topics carefully if we want to positively impact our world.
In speculative fiction of all stripes, the author has free reign to define every aspect of the world, including its prejudices and social problems. I can imagine three ways we might respond to the call to write about Hard Topics:
Especially in fantasy and sci-fi, we make up the rules as we go. There is a sense in which the purpose of imaginary worlds is to escape the frustrations of the real world. Is it absolutely necessary, then, to include any of the “-ism’s” that assault us every day?
Some would say no. There’s enough garbage in the world as it is. For some readers, encountering more of the same in the written word is a huge turn-off. There is value in owning escapism, either for pure entertainment, or as a mental health break from all the noise and negativity. I want to acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with that. We need a balanced diet to live, but sometimes you want a nice cheesecake.
Avoidance is ok… in every sense of the word. It is both an acceptable response, and a somewhat tepid one. You are not likely to offend your reader, but neither will you inspire them. Everyone enjoys an entertaining story, but with entertainment alone, joy fades. The stories we remember the longest are about something. It is almost impossible to write a tale with meat and meaning while avoiding the Hard Topics.
The next step up is to sprinkle in some realistic Hard Topics on top of the main narrative. Maybe you don’t want to come across as preachy, but you also don’t want to shy away from real issues. So, you compromise. You mostly write your action-packed fantasy tale, but coat it with a veneer of “-isms” with an eye towards rounding out the world.
If I can editorialize for a minute (as if I wasn’t already…), I think this is the most dangerous space to live. Hard Topics take space to flesh out. By dabbling and alluding, we risk causing inadvertent harm. That harm can come from oversimplification, stereotyping, or plain old misinformation.
My semi-professional opinion is if you’re going to go this route, stick to one “-ism.” That way you have the space to explore some nuance, and to hang flags where appropriate to let readers know that the behavior depicted on the page is not ok, and that’s the point.
And do your research. Always.
The “final level” of Hard Topic integration is incorporation. You know the issues you want to tackle, and they are woven thoughtfully into the fabric of the story. They are not side-dressing, not breaks from the plot, they are the plot.
The downside of this tact is the inverse of avoidance. It can come across as dull or preachy. If the reader doesn’t agree with your treatment of the issue, they may get offended and put it down. Worse, they may take to the social platform du jour and tear down your hard-wrought work.
The upside is that full incorporation has the greatest potential for creating a product that lasts. A story with the potential to touch hearts, change minds, and heal souls.
I’m very new at this. I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes survey the labyrinth of societal pitfalls that lie in wait for every creative work and want to close my keyboard and watch some TV.
I also recognize that I write this as the very definition of ‘privilege.’ I’m white, male, protestant, suburban, and straight. I wear glasses and I built my creative chops running table-top RPG’s. There’s a sense in which I’m a walking traditional fantasy writer prototype. There are some things going on in America today that I know I can never fully understand, experientially. But, that doesn’t excuse me, or any of us, from learning. Then, we must apply what we learn by working hard for justice.
Chances are high that if we write about the Hard Topics, we will upset about half the readers all the time, and we will suffer their slings and arrows. How do we make sure it’s worth it? Be intentional and thoughtful. Make sure that whatever you write, you write it on purpose, and you’re mindful of the impact and consequences of your choices.
We’re going to fall short. Given that, I wonder if you’ll indulge me, reader, if I borrow my final words of encouragement –
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”Theodore Roosevelt, from Citizenship in a Republic, 1910.